Day 1 - Alfama, Castelo and Graça
Start your day at the Confeitaria Nacional in Praça da Figueira. Founded in 1829, its egg and almond tarts, macarons and pasteis de nata, accompanied by a coffee will give you the energy for your up and down walk around Lisbon.
Turn left in Rua da Correeiros and walk its length to reach Praça do Comercio: just think that in the past whoever came to Europe by sea was passing through here and this will explain the feeling that the square with its triumphal arc still is the access gate to the city. Actually the triumphal arc was built in 1755 after the earthquake that nearly destroyed Lisbon; it hosts statues of Vasco de Gama and the Marquis of Pombal, two historical figures that contributed to making Lisbon the great city that it was.
Walking the full length of Praça do Comercio you will reach the shores of the Tago river. Either take a left and walk along the river, or head back to Rua de Alfandega and climb towards the “Se”, Lisbon cathedral. It represents one of the symbols of the city and it does look like a fortress. It was built in 1150 on the same site were a mosque had been destroyed once the christians freed the city from the arabs. The massive and stern facade does not reflect the quiet ribbed vault inside. Despite having very nice hand-painted rose windows, we found the church rather gloomy and dark. To the left hand side of the church entrance, a baptismal font adorned with white and blue azulejos certainly deserves a stop.
Exiting the cathedral, take a left on Rua de Sao João de Praça, famous for the Fado places, little cafes with vault ceilings and building facades covered with azulejos. This small road will take you right in the heart of Alfama neighborhood where no directions are needed. It’s much nicer to get lost in the maze of the travessas.
Reach the Miradouro de Santa Luzia. (If you are lazy and lucky enough to find it, there is also an elevator that will take you there). This terrace covered in bouganville gives you an amazing view of the Alfama red rooftops and the river Tago. Admire not only the view but the mosaics of blue azulejos that surround the terrace and represent the siege of Lisbon. There are always street music players that will provide a nice soundtrack to the view.
Follow the indications for the Castel de Sao Jorge that is towering over the hill. The cue is not very encouraging, but if you have enough time to wait and visit castle, you can team up and while one of you waits in line the other can go and grab a pastel de bacalhau across the street. The castle was built in the 11th century by the arabs as the heart of their citadel. After that the crusaders and the Portuguese royals built around it and enlarged it. Enter and walk under the shade of the pine trees that line the bastions to enjoy the 360 view of the city. The castle is mostly ruins now, and there’s a lot of steep stairs to climb. The view deserves more than the actual archeological site, up to you to decide if it’s worth your time. Climb down the other side of the hill and grab a sandwich and a fresh juice at Nova Pombalina, a small neighborhood café in Rua do Comercio.
After lunch enjoy a stroll in the neighborhood of Baixa. Stop for an ice cream at Fragoleto in Rua da Prata 61, check out the vintage boutique Outra Face da Lua in Rua Assunçao 22, buy some sardinhas at the historical 30’s Coserveira de Lisboa whose shelves are filled with canned fish with a retro design. Once you’ve closed the loop and you find yourself again in Plaça da Figueira, stop at A Ginjinha. You will be greeted by the stern look of Antonio Espinheira, a Galician man who in the 1800’s made the experiment of letting cherries ferment in brandy, adding sugar, water and cinnamon. The experiment was very successful since people are still lining up while the owners keeps on filling glasses of ginjinha.
Day 2 - Tram 28, Estrela, Chiado
Start your day with a ride through the city’s neighborhoods on tram number 28. We boarded in in Praça Martin Moniz, but here the queue is quite discouraging: we ended up waiting 40 minutes in line. A better alternative would be to wait for it to arrive along the narrow roads of Graça. You can buy the tickets on board but it will be cheaper to use the metro card. There is a reason why this ride is a must for most of the tourists: during the 40 minutes to Campo Orique the old, rickety tram climbs the streets of Graça with the clothes hanging so close to the tram windows you can nearly touch them, then goes down in Alfama showing the red rooftops and the Se cathedral, crosses the Baixa to climb again towards the elegant Praça Luis de Camoes. After the tram passes the Calçada de Estrela with the pastel-color azulejos, get out in front of the white dome and towers of the neoclassical Basilica de Estrela.
A quick stop inside this church will reveal an inside decorated with black and pink marble. The church was commissioned in 1790 by Maria I as a thank you for having had a male heir. Her black marble tomb is on the right side of the altar. Take a stroll in the Jardim de Estrela just in front of the church: the trails under the pine trees and the palms offer a nice repair from the summer heat, or as in our case from the spring drizzle. Out of the Jardim take a left and travel backwards the same route of the tram 28 to reach the neoclassical Palacio da Assembleia da Republica, that houses the Portuguese parliament. The building that looks like a greek temple with the columns and the statues, lies on the ruins of a benedictin monastery.
Time for a lunch break! Nearby you will find O Cocho, an Alentejana gastronomy (Alentejo, literaly “beyond the river”, is a geographical and cultural region in the south of Portugal that is famous for its olives and traditional sausages) that serves small bites and tapas for lunch. The two owners, despite not being super talkative, show the love for their region in the way they present the products and in the choice of the name: a “cocho” is a traditional cork bowl from Alentejo used to drink water.
A short but steep walk towards the botanical garden then down the road will take you at the base of the Elevador da Gloria: this cable car, running since 1885 and taking people from Praça dos Restauradores to Rua Sao Pedro de Alcantara, is unfortunately besmirched with graffiti, and the 350 m ride is not really worth it. Much better to walk beside it taking pictures till you reach the top of the steep Calçada da Gloria and the Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara. The panorama from this terrace is not as breathtaking as others.
While leaving the Miradouro towards the neighborhood of Chiado, stop by the Igreja Sao Roque to admire the contrast between the stern facade and the gilded inside, adorned with azulejos and marble.
With your back to the church portal, take the road to your left and walk down towards the Convento do Carmo that will really give you an idea of what happened to Lisbon in 1755. In the early 1700 Lisbon was at its height, flourishing through the commerce of silk, spices and the gold coming from Brazil. The on the morning of All saints day in 1755 three major earthquakes, followed by a fire and a tsunami razed the city to the ground. The Convent, founded by the carmelitans in 1389, crumbled down as well, killing the believers that were attending the Mass. After a short attempt to rebuild it, it was left as it was, with the arches and the columns forming a skeleton under the sky. The nave is disseminated of broken pieces of the original church, while the chapels host the Archeological museum.
Just a 1-minute walk from the Convent, Fabulas (Calçada Nova de Sao Francisco 14) with its exposed stones, the trembling flame lights of the candles and the hidden corners offers a very relax environment to recharge your batteries with a coffee and a piece of cake. If the weather permits it, sit in the inner garden, that we missed all together. Follow Rua do Loreto and do not miss on your left hand side the arrival of the Elevador da Bica that since 1892 climbs Rua da Bica de Duarte Belo. After Rua da Bica, a small street on your left will take you to the Miradouro de Santa Catarina: we had great expectations for this terrace that promised a vertiginous view of the city, but the scaffolds that were covering it (at the time) left us very disappointed. We were more fascinated by the Pharmacy museum and it’s garden bar than by the view.
Day 3 - Belem
A stroll in the neighborhood of Belem will make you travel back in time the era of the geographical discoveries of Portugal during the 15th and 16th Century when explorers such as Vasco da Gama and Magellano were sailing away towards distant lands filled with gold and spices and Portugal was but a drop in the imperial ocean of Manuel I.
From Praça de Figueira take tram number 15 that in 30 minutes will take you to Belem. If you are early enough or if you feel like facing a queue, stand in line at the Antiga Confeitaria de Belem that since 1837 bakes fresh pasteis de nata. They are still sometimes called pasteis de Belem because they were first baked in a sugar factory next to the Mosteiro in Belem.
Start your tour of this suburb of Lisbon from the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos. The Monastery was built in 1501 by order of king Manuel I to celebrate Vasco da Gama discovery of the sea routes for India. It housed the ecclesiastical order of San Jeronimos whose spiritual duty was to pray for the sailors. The order disappeared in 1833 and the Monastery was used as a school and orphanage until 1940. The tickets for the Monastery are easily purchased at the center of the Monastery with automatic machines, while the main entrance is by the side of the Monastery. Before showing your ticket turn right and enter the Church.
The first thing that captures the attention are the massive columns that support the stone ceiling. Follow the path by the right side of the church, pass the altar and stop at the sacristy. The single central massive column that radiates towards the ceiling like a palm tree branching toward the four corners to support the ceiling and the wooden drawers definitely deserve the 1.50 euro of admission.
Out of the Church starts the visit at the actual Monastery. The cloister is built with lighter stones compared to the Church: walk around the lower level to admire the arches and the columns splendidly decorated with leaves and creepers. Before climbing the stairs to the upper cloister level, stop to visit the refectory, whose walls are covered with religious azulejos, and the capital room, with the tomb of the the Portuguese historian Herculano. Once on the upper level of the cloister pay attention to the gargoyles overlooking the central garden.
You can enjoy a walk and the best view of the Monastery from the Praça do Imperio. Crossing the square towards the river it’s impossible not to notice a white stone monument of a caravel. The Padrao dos Descobrimentos was built in 1960 to celebrate the 5th century anniversary of Henry the Navigator; it’s a 52 meters sculpture picturing all the famous Portuguese explorers. There is an elevator inside that can take you to the top, but you can get the same view from the Belem Tower.
We suggest a lunch stop at “2 a 8”, nice modern bistro were the petiscos (tapas) are mouthwatering and well presented. But leave some space for the delicious chocolate mousse.
Continue you walk along the river taking a right towards the Belem Tower; this represents a symbol of the Age of Naval Discoveries. It was built in 1515 to defend Lisbon’s port. The queue outside can be quite long as they admit only 120 people inside at a time. Once inside your IQ will be challenged by the complicated system of traffic lights that regulates the flow of people going up and down the 93 steps of the spiral staircase. Once you see the green light you will have precisely 2’30” to go up. If you are not fast enough, at the end of that time frame you will hear an hissing sound prompting you to leave immediately the staircase, up to you how… If you get to the top the view is definitely worth it. Enjoy it…!
Not everybody is aware of a curiosity about the Belem Tower. When you are walking out of the tower, turn left and under the western tower you will see the statue of a rhino: this is the portrait of an Indian rhino that was donated by Manuel I to the Pope in 1515 (but who never reached Rome since he drowned with the boat that was carrying him…).
As a final stop of your day in Belem, we suggest a visit tu Museu Colecçao Berardo.With its collection of modern and contemporary art, paintings from Picasso, Pollock, Miro, Warhol, it is simply unbelievable how this museum is not part of the touristic itineraries at all. Granted, not everybody can appreciate whatever art happened after 1960, especially if it’s a video of a man blowing a ballon with the nose, but the first floor with art of the early 1900 is definitley worth the 5 euros of the ticket.
Day 4 - Markets and what else
It’s always a good idea to keep one day “unplanned” for some last minute souvenirs shopping, for those things that you would do only once you’ve seen everything else. If you have kids (we don’t have any, but it was still hard to convince F not to go…) you can plan a visit to the Ocenario, located just outside the city and easily reachable by metro. Close by there is the Parque de Nacoes, that was built for the 1998 EXPO, and the Vasco da Gama bridge, the longest pedestrian bridge.
We decided (actually E did, since it was her birthday) to go to the Mercado de Ribeira, now known also as Timeout Market. Here you will find every food you ever wished for, and more. All the famous restaurants, cafes and pastry shops in town have their little shop in the market. Even the Michelin-starred restaurants in Lisbon have their stalls! If it’s time for a late breakfast grab a pastel de nata at Manteigaria, if too late for breakfast, choose among the delicious ham and cheese selection, the sardinhas, the pasteis de bacalhau and so on. If it’s a nice day outside, we suggest to do as we did, grab a little of everything, have it packed and head for a picnic to the Parque de Necesitades. The 714 bus (the stop is right behind the market) will take you there directly.